As the home of nearly one in every five universities in the QS World University Rankings, the US remains the world's leading destination for international students.
In 2011-12, around 764,500 international students were studying in the US, according to the Institute of International Education's Open Doors report. The most popular states for international students were California, New York and Texas, and the most popular subjects were business and management, engineering, mathematics and computer science.
Of course, it’s not just the standard of US universities that draws students in. Whether you’re attracted to the bright lights and fast pace of the big city or miles and miles of unspoiled wilderness; sun-kissed beaches or lush forests; the rustic and traditional or the sleek and modern, this huge and incredibly diverse country has something for everyone.
Universities in the US
The sheer volume and variety of universities in the US also means that you can be pretty confident of finding a suitable institution in your preferred surroundings. And if you don’t get it right the first time, moving between universities in the US is not uncommon.
American undergraduate degrees last four years. You will spend the first two studying a wide range of subjects – you can choose which ones, but you will be required to cover certain subject areas set by your university – after which you choose the subject on which you want to focus.
Learn more about studying in the US by reading our state-by-state guides, listed below.
District of Columbia
Facts about The USA
Federal presidential republic with bicameral legislature
President (currently Barack Obama) is both head of state and head of government
Capital city: Washington DC
Biggest city by population: New York, followed by Los Angeles and Chicago
50 states, plus the District of Columbia (the DC in Washington DC)
Five overseas territories (people who live there are US citizens but cannot vote)
World’s biggest economy, with a GDP of over US$15 trillion
World’s number one destination for international students
Biggest spender on defence in the world, spending more than six times more than China (next biggest), in 2010
Either the third or the fourth biggest country in the world, depending on how you measure
National sports include: American football, basketball and baseball, with ice hockey popular in northern states
Formerly part of the British empire, until gaining independence in the late 18th century
Currency: United States dollar ($)
Time zones: from UTC-5 (-4 in summer) to UTC -10
International dialling code: +1
Find out more about some of the US's major student cities...
Universities in New York
As well as the Big Apple and the City That Never Sleeps, New York is sometimes called the ‘Capital of the World’.
Few other cities conjure up as many instant associations, be it the skyscrapers that serve as towering monuments to the city’s financial power, the legendary music and fashion scenes, the bright lights and glitz of Broadway or something else altogether; everyone has their own sense of the city, be it from experience or otherwise.
There is no shortage of quality universities in New York either, the best known of which are Columbia (ranked 11th in the 2012/13 QS World University Rankings) and New York University.
Universities in Boston
Universities in Boston include (we’re cheating a bit and counting Cambridge, MA as part of Boston) Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – ranked first and third in the world in 2012/13. If you enjoy being surrounded by the best and the brightest, then you can’t really do much better. Fittingly, it can also offer plenty by way of arts and culture too, particular when it comes to contemporary classical music. It’s not all serious academia and highbrow culture though: Boston is renowned for its pubs and bars, and its fondness for sports.
Universities in Chicago
In terms of wealth, population, and cultural impact, Chicago only lags behind the behemoths that are New York and Los Angeles. From a distance, it appears to be a sterile mass of imposing skyscrapers, but underneath all that glass, metal and concrete is a living breathing city, known for its lively mixture of cultures, its vibrant live music scene and nightlife, and its thriving intellectual life.
High-ranking universities in Chicago include the University of Chicago (8th in the 2012/13 QS World University Rankings and Northwestern (just outside the city) at 27th - and there are plenty more quality institutions too…
Universities in San Francisco & the Bay Area
Universities in San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area include two of the world's most prestigious and best-known. UC Berkeley and Stanford are ranked 22nd and 15th respectively in the 2012/13 QS World University Rankings. The intellectual might of this pair has massively contributed to the area’s wealth, which is largely founded on the technology hub that is Silicon Valley.
San Francisco itself, and the branch of the University of California which shares its name, is also known for its groundbreaking biomedical research. Add mild weather, a liberal outlook to life and a solid party culture, and you can see the appeal for yourself…
Universities in Los Angeles
Los Angeles will forever be primarily defined by the creative industries on which its wealth is founded: music, television, and – most of all – film. Other things that might leap to mind when you think of the city are the bright Californian sun, beaches, and the perpetual pursuit of the body beautiful – after all, this is the home of ‘Muscle Beach’.
But if you’d rather be exercising your mind than your body, there are plenty of prestigious universities in Los Angeles, including UCLA – 31st in the 2012/13 QS World University Rankings. Worth a look if you’re into star-spotting too!
US financial aid & fees
In terms of fees, universities in the US do not tend to differentiate between domestic and international students (domestic students studying at public universities in the state in which they live do pay less though).
Fees do, however, vary significantly from university to university. Here one thing is certain – it won’t be cheap. However, there’s a good chance you will not have to pay the full figure. Universities in the US are known to offer substantial discounts, grants and scholarships.
If you want to get an idea of what US financial aid you’re eligible for, use the ‘net price calculator’ on university websites (all institutions are required to offer this service).
US university applications
You will need to apply directly to the universities. If you are accepted you’ll be entered into an international student database, and sent a copy of the information stored on this, which you will need to check for accuracy. It’s also important to ensure that you pay the fee (the SEVIS I-901 fee) for this database service, which will be US$200.
US visa requirements
You will then be ready to apply for your F-1 non-immigrant visa. In order to obtain this you will need to arrange an interview at your local US embassy, following the US visa requirements process below.
Pay the MRV fee of US$140 (the embassy will tell you where you should pay this).
Complete a DS-160 form online, uploading a photograph.
Bring your acceptance letter, proof you’ve paid all the fees and filled in the right forms, and a passport which doesn’t expire until six months after you complete your degree to the interview.
The decision will be in the hands of the consular officer. Their decision will hinge on three things: whether you can financially support yourself, whether you can show you can and want to return home after graduating (getting a work visa is a whole different process), and whether you can prove your academic results to date.
The last of these may involve you proving your proficiency in English. You will also have to provide proof of this to your university at the application stage.
Additional demands will be made if you have a criminal record, or you’re an expert in certain areas of science and technology.
You can receive your visa a maximum of 120 days before your course’s start date – but processing can take place before this date. You cannot actually enter the country until 30 days before the beginning of your course, unless you have a visitor visa. This last stipulation also applies to those who would normally not require a visa for short stays in the US.